The scene after South Forsyth girls’ basketball’s 62-39 victory over South Gwinnett on Friday in the first round of the state Class AAAAAA tournament was far different than a year ago.
The buzzer sounded, and the Lady War Eagles went through their post-game routine without excessive enthusiasm. Just handshakes, a quick locker room speech from Lady War Eagles coach Keith Gravitt and a photo against the upper-level railing behind a black sign with pink and white letters that read, “Sweet 16.”
A year ago, the ending for South (24-5) had been written before tip-off. The Lady War Eagles faced two-time state champion Norcross with senior star Diamond DeShields, who eventually was named the Naismith Girl’s High School Player of the Year and signed with the University of North Carolina.
No surprise then that DeShields scored 19 points and the Lady War Eagles lost by 58 points in the first round. The state playoff appearance alone was a nice accomplishment for South after a 12-year absence.
Nice accomplishments won’t suffice for the Lady War Eagles this season, so they suffocated South Gwinnett on defense to force 26 turnovers and exploited their intensity on the glass, grabbing 11 offensive rebounds in a complete performance from start to finish.
“The girls who were here last year really remember that,” said South sophomore guard Sarah Myers, “and remember how it felt for our season to end so early when it was our first time being at state. We really wanted to take that next step together.”
Gravitt said his team “didn’t want to get turned away again.”
“We played a great team last year and a great player,” he said. “So there wasn’t a bad taste in our mouth. It was just they wanted that taste again, and they wanted to see if it could get a little sweeter maybe.”
South advances to the Sweet 16, where another potential game with Norcross awaits, for the first time since 2002. The No. 1-seeded Lady Blue Devils faced Walton on Saturday in a game that ended too late for this edition. But the Lady War Eagles have every expectation that they will have to travel Monday night to play at Norcross in the second round.
If so, they’ll face a different kind of Lady Blue Devils team than the one that eventually won the state title last season. DeShields is gone, as is Georgetown signee Shayla Cooper.
Norcross has relied more on playing stingy defense than expecting DeShields or Cooper to come through in clutch situations on offense.
And yet it is just as accomplished as last season, winning the Region 8-AAAAAA championship and going 22-5 at press time despite a grueling schedule.
But South showed Friday it is far from the same team as last season. The Lady War Eagles seized control from the start, bewildering South Gwinnett with intense man-to-man defense that led to steals and transition points.
After the Lady Comets cut South’s lead to 11-5 in the first quarter, the Lady War Eagles went on a 17-2 run into the second quarter to stretch their lead to 28-7 at halftime.
“I think it was real important to give our players confidence to get going early,” Gravitt said.
South Gwinnett had no answers for the Lady War Eagles. Freshman center Alexis Lewis made a put-back lay-up to start the third quarter, but South was undeterred.
Myers made a mid-range jumper, Mari Jonassen hit a 15-foot baseline shot, Myers made a transition jumper and Shelby Threlkeld got a steal and lay-up.
Suddenly, the Lady War Eagles led 36-9 for their largest lead of the game.
“Our team motto is start strong, finish strong,” Myers said. “I think we finally implemented that. We know that this might be our last home game, so we wanted to finish it strong.”
South’s contributions came from everywhere. Myers had a game-high 29 points, 13 of which came in the fourth quarter, to go along with five rebounds and three assists.
Threlkeld had 12 points, eight rebounds and three steals, while Ally Welch scored 12 points to go along with five rebounds and three assists. Ashley Hannan added six rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
The first round had been the end for that group last season. Friday, they made sure it was just the beginning.
“This is the first time we’ve gone to the Sweet 16 in a while,” Myers said, “so it’s so neat to do it together.”